On Jo Stafford

“I had four or five years in school training as a soprano. I fell into pop singing because of economics. I got out of high school and had to go to work, and they weren't hiring opera singers.” - Jo Stafford

What a thing to say! On the one hand, I’m all envy. The quote puts me in mind of a dinner I attended some years ago. I was seated next to a brilliant soprano who had sung many leading roles all over the United States a couple of “singer-generations” back. We talked about life, and how I got by, and she commiserated with me. She said that she felt for singers my age, what with our terrible clerical jobs.  When she was a girl, if you were an out-of-work singer, you went and sang on the radio, and she and her friends all did it (and grumped about the necessity). To a modern singer, 'singing on the radio' doesn’t sound like a day-job, but to her and her colleagues from that era, it was just that.

On the other hand, I can relate. Arts and artists suffered their own unique harm during the Recession of 2008, I think. Everybody was hurt, industries were hobbled, sectors were damaged, but artists ...well. It came home to every one of us who needed our living from our art, what it really means to be a luxury in Spartan times. Like Jo, I’d trained for [ahem] years as a singer, but I had to work, and they weren’t hiring opera singers. Watching the massive cutbacks and slashed seasons, near-death and, in some sad cases, the total annihilation of the opera companies that liked me, I was lucky I had the skills to get a job -- and luckier still to keep it during the avalanches of layoffs to come.  Then came  the search for music that was available to me in a perilous world. The days when a singer can turn to radio, the movies and big bands to avoid penury are long gone, so the job stays. But one never knows and, in any case, I’ll look to Jo Stafford for grit.

Jo Stafford was born in 1917, just ten years after the Panic of 1907, which started with -- what else? -- a stock manipulation scheme. The Stock Exchange fell 50% from the previous year, and state and local banks began to fail. Then came the runs on banks, and the US did not yet a central bank to manage the situation, which was spinning out of control. It took the personal intervention of J.P. Morgan himself to stem the blood flow, with a pledge of personal wealth to keep the Stock Exchange open. Morgan and his friends injected something near to $40 million into New York banks to stabilize America’s credit.

(Tangentially, but I like this kind of thing: J.P. Morgan, while a mixed bag, had superhero tendencies. His saving of the Stock Exchange in 1907 wasn’t his first rodeo; during the Panic of 1893, J.P. loaned then-President Cleveland $65 million dollars in gold to support the gold standard and save the nation from certain financial ruin.) 

The year Jo was born, the cultural landscape featured the string of Panics that had occurred every few years through the second half of the 19th century, as the nation struggled to develop a sane monetary policy and an at least rudimentary regulatory presence.  For the couple that brought the Stafford girls into the world and raised them, some relative level of financial insecurity would have simply been the world they lived in.

Jo would get her own taste of sweeping financial malaise: she was just a toddler for the Depression of 1920-21, the post-WWI fiasco when unemployment was almost 12% for eighteen months and the whole country in recession, with waves of soldiers surging back into a choked workforce.  But the kicker... Jo was twelve years old in 1929. Employment numbers didn't fully recover from the Crash until 1942-43.  Think of it: Jo was twenty-four years old before the unemployment rate she and her folks knew would ever once drop below 11%. (Compare that against our situation: The recent recession's unemployment rate topped out at 10% in October, 2009, and for the years since my 'singer generation' got out of high school, it's averaged about 5.5%, and that's if you factor in the terrible (and, if you please, before my time) year of 1982 which, at 9.7%, was not representative of the several years before and after. The first extended period of an actively good economy Jo Stafford would experience didn’t take hold until she had been earning her living for something like eight years. She got out of high school (1935, right smack in the middle of the Depression), took a look at the ashen landscape, set her operatic dreams aside and accepted her sisters' invitation to join their singing group, The Stafford Sisters. The girls performed on an LA radio station, and pretty quickly, Jo and her sisters started getting work as backup vocalists on film soundtracks.

Then WWII came, and with it growth and opportunity, but by then she was walking her road, and anyhow the nation’s gaze was fixed on all things military. Virtually everybody, from laborer to professional to artist, was pressed into appropriate service and by then, at least for her, opera wasn’t it. Jo's second-choice career had steadily progressed; she became the right girl singing the right music at the right moment -- and not for nothing, the right voice; with that coulda-been operatic instrument of hers, she had something special to offer the popular repertoire -- to throw herself into the big-band scene.  

Having landed a spot with Tommy Dorsey’s big-band, followed by a solo recording contract with Johnny Mercer’s fledgling Capitol Records, guided by Mercer and the brilliant composer/arranger/ conductor Paul Weston, and managed by the astute Mike Nidorf, virtually all of this on the cusp of World War II, she quickly dominated the newly formed Armed Forces Radio Service and easily became the soldiers' sweetheart, "G.I. Jo.” - Jerry Osterberg, The New York Sheet Music Society

So, throughout Jo’s youth until her mid-twenties at least, they weren’t looking for opera singers, but the bands were hiring. And I bet, given how meticulous and hard-working she was, she thanked God for it. 

Another striking thing about that quote is that she says she ‘trained for four or five years’ and ‘got out of high school’ and needed to go to work. I wondered about that.  I understand she studied with radio personality (and the husband of her sister, Pauline) Galen Drake.  Were these 'real' voice lessons, or were they like what I took in high school? The lessons I took definitely did not put me into condition to be taken seriously by any opera company, at any level. But whatever her training consisted of in particular, it's true that, like Roberta Peters, who debuted at the Met at the tender age of twenty (after, admittedly, several years of exacting studies, as a young teenager) it was possible for an opera singer to start quite young in those days. There's no reason not to believe that in easier times, she mightn't have been competitive, able to earn a living in opera houses. Roberta, in 1930, was born to working-class parents, in a Depression landscape that made hard workers and strong people; she also had great looks and a spectacular voice. Given their similar circumstances, the 13-year age difference must have been critical. Even supposing that Roberta's training was more thorough -- one understands it was exceptional -- she also had the advantage of graduating high school in 1947-48, with no dead time looking for work in a rotten economy, and roaring into the boom years; the building and the making and the buying and the having all the creature comforts. Roberta’s young adulthood was lived through the prism of that national celebration of ourselves, the 1950’s. 

with Paul Weston

All this said, artists tend to role model other artists, on multiple levels: We examine the technique, the execution of the performance, the mental game -- stem to stern. For me, regarding Jo, I liked her voice (and even more, her singing) from the first. I liked the choices she made as an artist and a performer; I felt like I understood why she refused the things she turned down. I felt some simpatico with her reported attitudes about what was important in life and her management of her place in the industry.  It seems to me that Jo Stafford must have been an eminently practical girl and a clear-headed woman. She was a person strong enough, even as a teenager, to make sure that she had a j.o.b., and grew into an artist who knew what she wanted and how to get it. It was when I contextualized her life, and began to consider the ways nature and nurture might have informed her choices, I liked her.


Kathryn AllynComment